Debate: Food Safety in Wake of California Mad Cow Case

Photo: USDA

The discovery of the first case of mad cow disease in California and just the fourth in the U.S. has sparked a conversation over whether the nation’s food safety protocols are working — or not.

Yesterday on KQED Public Radio’s Forum program, a discussion on the case with:

  • Jere Dick, veterinarian and associate deputy administrator with USDA Veterinary Services
  • Michael K. Hansen, senior scientist at Consumer’s Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports
  • Tom Talbot, chairman of the Animal Health and Well Being Committee at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, veterinarian and California beef producer

Listen to the segment or read the edited transcript below…

Transcript:

HOST MICHAEL KRASNY: The USDA has confirmed, as a result of random sampling, a case of mad cow disease in a dairy cow in Hanford, California near Fresno. Agriculture officials say meat eaters are not at risk because it’s an atypical case, since the affected cow was not intended for the food supply and the disease cannot be transmitted by milk.

Still, the brain-wasting disease can be fatal to cattle and fatal to humans eating tainted meat. We discuss Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) and other issues facing the beef industry.

Joining us from Washington, D.C. is Dr. Jerry Dick, who is a veterinarian, Associate Deputy Administrator with USDA Veterinary Services. And also glad to have Dr. Michael K. Hansen, who’s a PhD senior scientist with the Consume’s Union, a nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. And we’ll also be joined by Tom Talbot from the National Cattleman’s Beef Association.

Let me begin, Dr. Dick. with you, just by talking about most of the reports coming in saying that this shows how effective testing procedures are for BSE, but some criticism is saying that it’s kind of lucky and random you found this cow.

USDA’S DICK: Actually we have a very extensive surveillance program in place, where we continually sample animals from several surveillance streams in order for us to be able to detect this disease all the time. We’ve been doing that for a number of years and every year we take about 40,000 samples to our laboratories on a randomized basis to continue to stay on the outlook for the disease.

KRASNY: That’s a detection level of about one case for every million cattle. I know it exceeds the World Health Organization but 40,000 tested each year is, well, not enough.

USDA’S DICK: That’s about 10 times the OIE standard. We believe strongly that it is a very high level of sampling in this country, especially with the history we’ve had – we haven’t found but three cases, one of which was an imported case which we found in the Northwest about ten years ago.

So we believe it’s a good sampling system, it provides us with a great level of confidence to find the disease if it’s present.

KRASNY: Do we know where this particular cow, where the disease came from with this cow? How the cow got this particular affliction?

USDA’S DICK: No, we don’t yet. Of course, we just diagnosed this particular case in our laboratory and confirmed it less than 24 hours ago. We’re now starting the second phase, which is the on-farm investigation – what we call epidemiology – or looking for all of the factors that might have contributed to this animal being affected. But we’re just in the very early stages of that and have a lot of work left to do.

KRASNY: It’s being assumed that it may be an atypical BSE, maybe mutation?

USDA’S DICK: Well, again, BSE has been around for over 20 years. There’s been a lot of work done, both in the United States and around the world, a significant amount of research done, and during that period of time the tests have continued to improve and we began to see – the scientific community began to see – occasional variation in the molecular, protein structure in that organism.

So very rarely we find one that does not fit the typical molecular protein structure and this one, from our lab experts, appears to not fit the classical BSE structure. So we are referring the tests that we’ve done to other laboratories in Canada and England so we can work with other scientists to begin to classify and further characterize the organism.

KRASNY: Dr. Dick, when will be able to get more information from the USDA about the process of how these cases are investigated and is there a plan in the works to do more intensive monitoring here in California?

USDA’S DICK: We will certainly provide information as it comes in. We have a USDA website and we would encourage people to go to it. We’ll be providing proactively and transparently the information as it becomes available, as we go through the investigation.

KRASNY: Do we know if other cows in the herd have been affected?

USDA’S DICK: We have not yet been to the dairy at all and we’re just beginning that process so there’s no way to answer that at this point in time.

KRASNY: Do you know how many of the 40,000 animals a year are tested for mad cow in California as opposed to other states?

USDA’S DICK: I don’t have an answer to that. We do know that California is statistically represented well in the sampling scheme. We set up our surveillance system to insure that we have broad representation by regions of countries. We do know that California is well represented and we’re doing an adequate number of sampling surveillance in the state of California.

KRASNY: How long will it take, roughly, to determine if this came from the feed?

USDA’S DICK: Well, we will do the epidemiology. That varies depending on the size of the herd and a lot of different factors, but we have a group of folks hitting the ground today beginning that investigation. It’s likely to take several months before we have all of the factors put together, but certainly we’ll be doing that in a methodical, standardized way so that can capture everything that we need.

KRASNY: Michael Hansen is with us as well, senior scientist for the Consumer’s Union, a nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. A lot of concern from Consumer’s Union – break it down for us, if you could, Dr. Hansen.

CONSUMER UNION’S HANSEN: Yes, the three things we’ve pointed out is, number 1, the surveillance is inadequate in our view. Forty thousand out of over 30 million cattle slaughtered is not an adequate sample size, regardless of what OIE says.

I would point out, in Japan for example, all cattle above the age of 20 months that go into the food supply are tested. In many European countries, all animals above the age of 30 months are being tested – so it’s a far higher rate. That’s one. Second, in terms of the testing, it’s my understanding they’re not really testing any animals that are going into the food supply but basically testing what’s called ‘dead stock.’

The Hanford facility in California where this animal was rendered – they have advertisements – specialize in dead stock removal. So there’s a question of whether the animal was even alive when it was sampled, that’s been a problem with this surveillance program over time. When they had the huge expanded surveillance program where they tested 789,000, 85 percent of the cows were dead – no other information added.

So we don’t think that’s an adequate sample; we think there needs to be much larger sampling in terms of testing. There have been companies that have wanted to use these same tests that the government is using to be able to test their cattle at slaughter so that they can sell them to other countries as BSE-tested, or even label them that way in this country, and the government is saying they cannot do that because they claim the tests are accurate if the government uses them but if the private sector wants to use them they’re completely inadequate and useless.

There’s also the issue of the feed or what we still allow to be fed to cattle, which is not allowed in other countries. We have banned the feeding of cattle parts directly back to cattle, but there’s still a lot of loopholes. Right now, you can grind up cows and they can be fed to pigs and chickens, and then pigs and chickens can be ground up and fed back to cattle. That’s an indirect mechanism where the agent could be getting into cattle.

But there’s also, because of these loopholes, a direct mechanism. It turns out cow’s blood is exempt from this so you can feed cow’s blood back to cow’s – and that is being done – spray-dried bovine plasma is being used as a calf milk replacer. We know the infective agent, the prion proteins, the mutated ones, are indeed found in blood that is being fed to cattle in this country.

We also allow the feeding of chicken litter, and that’s found in chicken coops. There’s two billion pounds, roughly, fed to cattle every year. In 2003, Dr. Lester Crawford, who was then acting Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, gave an interview where he pointed out that chickens waste so much feed when they eat, that chicken litter could be, up to one-third its weight, spilled feed. And of course, ground-up cows can indeed be put into chicken feed which can be spilled and we know two billion pounds of that is being fed to cattle every year. That practice is not allowed in Europe, not allowed in Japan, and is also not allowed in Canada. We need to close these feeding loopholes.

I’d also like to point out they’re saying this is an atypical case of BSE. The Washington Post is reporting this morning that it is the L-type BSE. The reason that is important is if it is indeed the L-type, there have been scientific studies where they used what are called humanized mice – these are mice that have been engineered so they only express human prions – and when you affect those mice with classical BSE or any of these atypical strains, it turns out that the L-type BSE is more virulent than classical BSE. The animals come down with BSE quicker and more rapidly. This has been shown in scientific studies, so if this is indeed the L-type BSE that is more virulent and that is upsetting.

I think what needs to be done is a dramatically expanded surveillance program and we need to find out how many other animals have been infected. It would also be good if we found out of the 40,000 of the animals tested every year how many are dead, how many of them were tested from animals that were exhibiting some kind of neurological symptoms when they were at slaughterhouses or elsewhere.

KRASNY: Well, you’re also concerned that the cows are not being tested before going to the slaughter house, aren’t you?

CONSUMER UNION’S HANSEN: Yes. We are concerned. We think animals going into the food chain should be tested. You should be testing all the animals above a given age going into the food supply. I can point out that in Europe when they did this they found over a thousand cows between 2002 and 2006 that didn’t exhibit any symptoms but tested positive and were therefore kept out of the food chain, because these tests can also detect animals before they exhibit symptoms.

KRASNY: So Dr. Hansen, you think the USDA should allow private testing?

CONSUMER UNION’S HANSEN: Absolutely. They should allow private testing with the approved tests that have been approved in this country and that are also used globally as well.

Indeed there was a court case involving this, that Creekstone Farms brought against the government. They initially won the case but then when it was appealed at higher levels, the government actually got that overturned. We think that’s wrong. Private companies should be allowed to test their cows at slaughter as long as they use the approved tests and as long as any positive result should be required to be turned over to the government and ultimately made public.

KRASNY: Tom Talbot is joining us as well. He’s a chair of the Cattle Health and Well-Being Committee, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. He’s also a veterinarian and California beef producer. Let’s first get your take on this L-type BSE. What do we know that score? Is this verified or is it just tentative? This could be a lot more serious, back in 2003 actually it was devastating to the beef industry when you had a virulent form.

CATTLE INDUSTRY’S TALBOT: I have not heard that at this stage, that it would be brand new information for me. I have stayed in close contact with everything that the USDA has put out, as well as a number of other sources, and that’s news to me. I think the bottom line on this is it’s still not the classic form of BSE, it’s a-typical. If as we know, as I think the scientific community within this country and internationally agrees, that the a-typical form is probably not contracted from eating contaminated feed as was the classic form that was seen primarily in Europe. I think the fact that whether it’s an L-form or not, it’s still an a-typical case, really says we’re dealing with an extremely rare form of the disease and probably one and we’re not going to see other cases within this incident.

KRASNY: Well, you know, it certainly would be reassuring to consumers to know that that’s incontrovertible at this point. But the suggestion that it may be the L-type of BSE brings that into question and now you’re having some concerns in the beef industry about South Korea halting its beef imports and talks about banning in Japan. Why that kind of resistance from Asian countries specifically?

CATTLE INDUSTRY’S TALBOT: Well, the Asian countries have been difficult in this thing all along. One of the things that came out immediately yesterday was both Canada and Mexico made the statement right off the bat that this would not interfere with their trading issues with the United States. It’s a different situation in Japan and South Korea. In many cases, we don’t deal with sound science in those countries. Whatever is going on with politics in those countries is what dictates what happens. If we go back to 2003 when we had our first case, and our export markets to those countries were shut down, it took an extremely long time to get those markets back even when we had shown that our country had very, very minimal amounts of this disease, and that we were in compliance with OIE guidelines and all these other things. So, what we deal with in those countries doesn’t go back to dealing with the science, it deals with a great amount of what’s going on politically in those countries. So those are difficult issues for us. If it was strictly up to the science, there should be no reason that we should lose those trading partners in this point in time.

KRASNY: But what about the loopholes we heard Dr. Hansen talking about? That doesn’t concern you?

CATTLE INDUSTRY’S TALBOT: You know, I don’t think so. One of the things I wanted to touch on with one of his comments that we are testing primarily dead animals. You know, these are the highest risk animals. When we’re looking for the prevalence of a disease, we don’t want to go to the lowest risk animals, we want to go to the highest risk animals.

So, in a situation where we’re looking at the animals that have the highest risk, and if the prevalence in those animals was high then I think there would be a greater concern of testing normal, healthy animals. But the fact the prevalence of this disease in high-risk animals is low, there’s the logical conclusion that the prevalence of this disease is very, very low.

The other thing is that we’re talking about testing 40,000 heads of animals and if we don’t think that’s enough, we can go back to when we did detect BSE in this country back in December of 2003, a relatively short time after that – approximately June of ’04. Over the next two years, we tested almost 800,00 heads of high-risk animals. And what we found there was that the prevalence rate was extremely low and therefore it was determined that we could go ahead and reduce the amount of animals that were tested.

You know, this is based on sound epidemiological studies and I think we can feel comfortable in knowing that the prevalence in this industry is extremely low.

KRASNY: I should mention that we just got word that Japan will not suspend its import of beef from the United States. Although, South Korea as of today has suspended and South Korea is the fourth largest importer of US beef. I wonder if you could say something, Tom Talbot, about pink slime – this kind of beef additive that has a lot of people concerned.

CATTLE INDUSTRY’S TALBOT: The finely textured lean beef issue – that’s the proper term, I think pink slime is extremely inappropriate to use – finally textured lean beef is a product that has been around, has been produced in this industry for a long time. It’s a very healthy product, it’s a very safe product, and the fact that this issue came up after the product had been in the marketplace for many, many years is inappropriate.

You know, there have been a number of studies, there is very good science that says this product is safe, that it is healthy and what it does is it allows us to use a greater amount of the product of the animal and it allows us to keep some of the prices for hamburger, ground beef at a lower rate, makes it more affordable, makes it easier for people to feed themselves. The fact that this was brought to the public’s eye by a disgruntled former USDA employee, and thrown back into our face by one of the news stations is inappropriate. It’s disregarded all of the sound science that we use to make sure that that stuff wasn’t on the market to begin with.

KRASNY: Let me go back to Dr. Jerry Dick, who again is a veterinarian and Associate Deputy Administrator with the USDA Veterinary Services. Dr. Dick, people want to know, can they be reassured about buying meat at this point? I’d like to hear, if not reassurance from you, what they maybe ought to be looking for if they should be skeptical or concerned?

USDA’S DICK: I think Dr. Talbot hit the nail on the head. In short, the U.S. consumer can be confident that our meat and dairy products are safe.  We have a long history of good surveillance systems, we are a part of the OIE which is 182 countries around the world that gather scientists together to study the best methods to do things in the cattle industry, the sheep industry, the hog industry, and we can be sure that we also work very closely, it bears pointing out, with the World Health Organization, CDC, and other human health organizations to help insure our science is cutting edge and that we’re providing products that are safe.

KRASNY: We’re coming up on a break and I want to hear from the Consumer’s Union Dr. Hansen. If you could Michael Hansen, are you giving a caveat to consumers about beef and dairy products now?

CONSUMER UNION’S HANSEN: No, we’re saying we’re concerned because enough still hasn’t been done.

I would just very quickly like to say it’s not true that scientists think this atypical form is not from feed. Both of the atypical forms have been transmitted in humanized mice and if people want to do some feeding studies and grind up some of the brains of L-type or some of these other atypical BSEs, let’s feed them to other cattle and see if we can spread the infection that way. I bet you that most of the prion scientists out there would tell you that would turn up as a positive.

So this notion that this cannot come from feed, there’s no scientific evidence of that, there’s no feeding study where they’ve taken brain material from an atypical BSE cow and fed it to other cows and not got transmitted.

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Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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